I'm curious as to how so many words with the 'ch' sound have the silent 't' in them. Catch, itch, retch, hatchet, botch etc. The list is huge.

They all have different origins, and yet they have the silent 't'. But words like achieve, lecherous, spinach don't have the silent 't'.

Can anyone see any phonological patterns that might have led to this?

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    In some of your examples, I don't think the T is entirely silent. – user13141 Nov 15 '11 at 9:38
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    onomatomaniak@: The consonant represented by ‘tch’ in all the OP’s examples is, at least, in BrEng, /tʃ/. That’s the sound found at the beginning and end of ‘church’. – Barrie England Nov 15 '11 at 9:55
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    To my ears, the final consonant sounds in spinach and itch are different (if only slightly). – user13141 Nov 15 '11 at 9:58
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    It seems to me that the 'tch' behaves in English spelling the way a doubled consonant would, and the 'ch' the way a single consonant would. That is, 'tch' is more likely to occur after short vowels. For example, you'd never put two 't's after an 'r'. So 'hurt' and 'church', 'better' and 'catcher', 'peach' and 'seat'. – Peter Shor Nov 15 '11 at 13:06
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    @Barrie: American dictionaries have /tʃ/ for spinach; however, it seems to me that it's pronounced both /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ in the U.S., just like sandwich and ostrich. This may be an instance of a systematic change in /-ɪtʃ/ in an unstressed syllable. – Peter Shor Nov 16 '11 at 2:40

Well, the T is not entirely silent. The words that do include the T has a kind of a T-sound starting it off. If you look at another word where the ch is not including the T is "bachelor", and it is not so sharp (more like a D-sound than a T-sound). The difference is very small, but it is there.

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    The Oxford English Dictionary disagrees. See my comment above. – Barrie England Nov 15 '11 at 17:22
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    Can you distinguish the final sounds in 'rich' and 'ditch'? 'much' and 'dutch'? – Mitch Nov 16 '11 at 16:53

It seems to me that the 'tch' behaves in English spelling the way a doubled consonant would, and the 'ch' the way a single consonant would. That is, 'tch' is more likely to occur after short vowels, so you see patch, botch, and crutch, but beach, roach, and pooch. As with any English spelling rule, there are numerous exceptions.

  • Shor, good point. Exceptions are there, as you said. Such, much, spinach, lecherous... – Akin Nov 15 '11 at 15:11

The words you mention have been spelt in many different ways over the centuries. To take just two examples, hatchet has also appeared as hachet, acchett, hachit, hachytt, hachette and hatchette and achieve as acheui acheeve, achyeue, atcheue, acheue, acheve, achieue, achyue, achieve, achiue, ascheve, atcheive, atchive, atchieue, atchiue, atchive, atchieve, acheive, atcheeue; acheive, acheue, atcheve, achieve and acheive. Make of that what you will.

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    Some of those ‘achieve’ spellings look far more like an attempt to write the act of sneezing onomatopoeically. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 18 '13 at 12:19

I side with onomatomaniak — I pronounce botch differently to leech.

I think looking at the etymologies of the words shows where the t comes from:

Compared to

(All of the above are taken from Etymonline)

I think there is a pattern that words that originally have cc become tch, whereas words with a single c or k become ch. Obviously there will be exception, but I think that this is where the majority come from.

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    Botch and church are not a good set of examples to give, mostly because church has the r in between. Botch and leech, maybe. I think there is a a slight, momentary 'hold and release' action of the tongue with the tch words; with non 't' ch sounds, it's a smoother pronunciation. – Akin Nov 15 '11 at 12:38
  • @Akin: fair point. I've updated the answer. – Matt E. Эллен Nov 15 '11 at 13:23
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    @Akin: indeed, to really compare them meaningfully, you have to give examples where the vowel is the same, eg rich and ditch, or much and Dutch, as \@Mitch suggests above. If you don’t mind invoking a proper noun, there’s an actual putative minimal pair in rich and the name Ritch. Would you really pronounce any of these differently, or be able to tell the difference in someone else’s pronunciation? I don’t think I would. – PLL Nov 17 '11 at 22:40
  • I would think "which" and "witch" would be better examples. Consider the question "Just so I'm clear, Witch Number One visited Witch Number Two?" I would posit that someone reading that sentence would pronounce it noticeably differently from "Just so I'm clear, which number one visited which number two?" Even if the differences between "which" and "witch" would normally be slight, I would expect a speaker to exaggerate them in cases where obvious ambiguity would otherwise exist. – supercat Aug 28 '14 at 21:38

Maybe it's because the 'ch' sound used to be pronounced as in the Scottish 'loch', so the 't' is added to indicate the harder sound?

  • Hi, Hilary. Welcome to English Language and Usage. This community is not a discussion forum and we encourage an answer with research/reference/link that can support it. Please make sure you visit our help center for additional guidance. You can post a comment when you have 50 reputation points. – user140086 Mar 7 '16 at 14:02
  • @Rathony Hilary is new and cannot comment yet I s'pose -- so it's posted as an "answer." I think there's a useful hypothesis there, though: "the 't' is added to indicate the harder sound?" – Kris Mar 7 '16 at 14:06
  • @Kris Yes. That's why I commented "You can post a comment when you have 50 reputation points." I am not sure about the useful hypothesis, but it needs addttional explanation to stand as an answer. – user140086 Mar 7 '16 at 14:08

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